ARENT WORTH TAKING
Brenda Sutcliffes family nearly died from OP poisoning
and she has since dedicated herself to investigating
and exposing the threat she claims they pose to stock
farmers health. Jeremy Hunt reports
FROM its outward appearance there is nothing unusual about the Sutcliffe familys farmhouse. But this stone dwelling, perched high on the bleak moorlands of east Lancashire, has been the setting for a disturbing train of events that almost culminated in the death of the entire household.
Sheep farmer Brenda Sutcliffe now believes she has all the scientific proof she needs to cite organophosphate-based sheep dips as the sole cause.
"Organophosphate-based sheep dips are the silent killer of the British sheep industry. Thousands of sheep farmers are unknowingly putting themselves and their families at risk by continuing to use these products," says Mrs Sutcliffe.
She recounts years of a living hell when both she and her family suffered from the effects of organophosphates. The inability to sleep, constant twitching, nausea and an inexplicable feeling of fear, were among the symptoms that baffled doctors.
"I think they thought we were all just going mad. It was a frightening experience because we had no idea what was happening to us."
There is still a small flock of Derbyshire Gritstone ewes grazing the 28ha (70 acres) at Sheep Bank Farm, Littleborough near Rochdale. None of them are now dipped. But for years the family used organophosphate-based dips, compounds described by Mrs Sutcliffe as life-threatening. She believes the risks posed by OP compounds are the subject of a major international cover-up.
"That is not an exaggerated statement; it is the truth and I have the proof. There are hundreds of other people out there who are suffering from the effects of these products but no one has the money to take on the might of the manufacturers or the Government.
"This is a matter of grave importance that must be taken up by the Health and Safety Executive. I blame the HSE for many of the deaths that OP dips have caused because this organisation should have been actively prosecuting the chemical companies under the Medicines Act."
Mrs Sutcliffe says the 1968 Medicines Act states quite clearly that substances which appear under Section 6 must be safe to use and to handle from the point of import through to the final user.
She believes the gradual introduction of protective clothing and competence certification for users points to an acknowledgement by the Government that OP dips are unsafe.
"But they wont go the whole hog and admit just how dangerous these compound are despite the fact that the HSE and the chemical companies admit that OP dips are toxic by inhalation."
She has also recently received a copy of "Notes on Diagnosis of C3" (C3 being OP poisoning) from the Industrial Injuries Advisory Council. The document has been in existence since 1975.
"The IIAC has been paying disability benefit for several years to industrial workers and still MAFF says OPs are safe."
Mrs Sutcliffe has a data sheet issued by the HSE in 1991 referring to a winter scab dip containing Propetamphos – a product the family used on their own flock. The data sheet was stamped as "received" into Rochdale Environmental Health Department in April 1993.
It stated that the product was "toxic by inhalation, ingestion and skin contact…irritating to eyes and skin."
"The Rochdale Environmental Health Department have sat on this information for nearly five years. Why did we not see this information until 1993? Why did nobody tell farmers about this two years earlier? And the HSE is still not advising farmers to use respirators even though these products are toxic by inhalation."
The HSE is just one of dozens of organisations and leading figures in agriculture and the government with whom Mrs Sutcliffe has corresponded over recent years.
The HSE no longer replies to her letters but every communication she has sent from Sheep Bank Farm is filed on shelves weighed down with documents in her farmhouse office now dedicated to exposing the threat of OP dips.
The big breakthrough in her fight to prove OP dips were responsible for her familys dire health problems came in a document from the USA supplied by a friend. Entitled Recognition and Management of Pesticide Poisoning it highlighted the ability of several OP-based products – including warble fly treatment – to act as cholinestrase inhibitors.
The enzyme cholinestrase is present in the blood of all insects, animals and humans and acts as an essential oil to the nerve endings to allow messages to flow to and from the brain.
Mrs Sutcliffe learnt that the normal level of cholinestrase in humans varies from 40 to 80ml per 100ml of blood. "When levels fall below 12ml per 100ml suicidal tendencies are greatly increased.
"The continued use of OP dips leads to a cumulative effect on cholinestrase levels in the blood. If you start from a low level you reach the danger point more rapidly.
"Those farmers with high levels of cholinestrase are able to dip a lot more sheep in OP compounds before they start to see the real effect of these dips compared with someone starting from a low blood level of the enzyme."
Mrs Sutcliffe says adverse symptoms dont start for about six weeks after dipping has been completed which means many people dont associate ill-health with something that happened several weeks previously.
"Our blood samples were analysed by Guys Hospital in London in 1994 which showed our cholinestrase levels were as low as 8.75ml per 100ml. The hospital confirmed in writing that this had been caused by exposure to organophosphates. We asked them to publish these results as a warning to other farmers.
"The hospital replied that this was not the way we work here.
Research work undertaken in the USA has been a more readily available source of information on the effects of OP dips than anything published in the UK. An approach to the USAs Environmental Protection Agency has produced a vast amount of data on the subject.
A copy of the US publication Recognition and Management of Pesticides Poisoning has proved a bible. It is believed to be the only copy in the UK and has been invaluable in Mrs Sutcliffes research.
"When MAFF are still saying there is no risk, why have the Americans produced so much data that proves just how dangerous these products are?"
Another document issued by the United States Environmental Protection Agency lists "manifestations of organophosphate poisoning – cholinestrase inhibitors".
The list includes: mental confusion, headaches, giddiness, convulsions, coma, sweating, chest constriction, pulmonary adema, nausea, muscular fibrillation, fatigue, blurred vision, salivation, hypertension, high blood pressure vomiting and cramps.
"I have researched compounds used in sheep dips. I think we can safely assume that those used in warble fly treatments are equally as devastating."
Mrs Sutcliffes research has shown:
1. Chlorfenvinphos – causes hallucinations
2. Diazinon – malformations in chickens
3. Carbophenothion – foetal toxicity and malformations on a third generation study of rats and schizophrenia in humans
4. Propetamphos – not yet evaluated by the World Health Organisation. Question: Why is it on sale in the UK?
She has offered Minister of Agriculture Jack Cunningham the massive amount of research material built up over the years from leading toxicologists. He has refused, without explanation, to accept it.
One of the biggest breakthroughs was establishing contact with psychiatrist Dr Ruth Bradwell – now working in New Zealand. Dr Bradwell, who has also had papers published in medical journals over the effect of OP compounds on mental health, invited Mrs Sutcliffe to present a paper on her own findings to a panel of doctors.
Mrs Sutcliffe now has a list of 100 individuals who have suffered severe health problems which they claim are directly linked to the continued use of OP dips.
"What should be a serious health issue has become a political issue: and that is no way to expose the real threat of these compounds. This is legalised murder in my opinion."
Mrs Sutcliffe describes her family life before the impact of OP dips: "We are very gentle people, got on with what we were doing, enjoyed our lives and had no financial worries or domestic problems.
"But the onset of the irritability caused by the cholinestrase imbalance led to severe anxiety trauma and contemplation of suicide. Many of the people who have contacted me have suffered the same symptoms.
"I have detailed accounts of individual experiences where people have documented their feelings; where deep anxiety has led to hallucinations and thoughts of suicide."
Mrs Sutcliffe says the OP issue has far reaching consequences beyond the farming community.
"Everyone is getting a dose in the water they drink because it cannot be completely kept out of the water table. And now school children are being treated for head-lice with pyrethroid compounds.
"This mess cannot be cleaned up unless OP products are banned and the Government comes clean on this issue. The Government knows how serious the situation is but its refusal to admit its mistakes continues to put more families through hell," says Mrs Sutcliffe.
Brenda Sutcliffe – dedicated to exposing the threat of OPs.